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Driving measurable change for sustainability

Driving measurable change for sustainability
Hong Kong Business District.

By Don McLean

Overall, cities are responsible for a major portion of pollution and waste in our society. But having a population condensed into close proximity also allows energy, water and other services to be provided more efficiently while minimizing infrastructure. The design of “eco-cities” – cities with sustainable smart buildings that integrate with each other and the grid itself to conserve resources – is becoming even more important as the world population is projected to keep rising for at least the next century. By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, which makes efficiency within those cities a necessity. Controlling our use of energy, water and other resources will no longer be an option, but a necessity as well.

Our sustainable future is in smart eco-cities, which utilize information and communication technology (ITC) to incorporate real-time dynamic control. Performance analysis and predictive interrogation of data will play a key part in this. An emerging vision is that each building would be designed or refurbished using state-of-the-art 3D simulation to quantify, optimize and verify its performance. The building simulation model would then be used to commission and subsequently control the building. However, in order for it to be a true eco-city it would not be enough for each building to be independently efficient. There would need to be a master system that can optimize citywide energy and water consumption in coordination with the relevant utilities.

Unfortunately, today there is a major barrier – the discontinuity between actual utilities consumption and design/simulated data. Buildings rarely perform as predicted, and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) only monitor and report in a descriptive, ad-hoc way. Vast amounts of data are collected but not fully utilized to inform decisions. These conventional management methods are laborious and make it difficult to maintain optimal control. Post-design, BEMS monitor only the individual building and rely on facility managers to interpret the data and act accordingly. This creates a lot of “data” but not viable “smart buildings.” So what can be done before, during and after the design process to solve this problem?

It isn’t the fault of the building designers, owners or even the operators. Until now, the technology to simulate and test optimization hypotheses based on real operational data simply didn’t exist. There was a greater reliance on design simulation technology that could point out flaws and optimize performance virtually before the building was constructed, and BEMS systems which monitor usage after the fact. However, with new software and computer modeling capabilities, creating smarter, more efficient eco-cities is easier than it has ever been. Performance analysis is quite possibly the technology that’s going to drive true eco-cities.

The design process of an eco-city should include experts from all segments of the construction industry. The answer lies within a sustainability hub. Communication and exchanges of information from different experts will spark innovations and create solutions, which will ultimately benefit everyone within the industry. Developing this integrated approach and incorporating performance analysis from the early stages of the design through to operation whereby everyone from the architect to the MEP engineer to the facilities manager work together is the key to designing an energy efficient building and ultimately an energy efficient community.

Building design using 3D models is already the norm and if used correctly, Building Information Modelling (BIM) can deliver a 3D model suitable for operational activities. Connecting the dots by incorporating real operational data into the model is the next step, and one which IES has already taken successfully.

During the design process the goal should be to create a zero-carbon building. This emphasizes the need to reduce energy through a climate responsive design, which can meet those demands efficiently and effectively. Once this is achieved, renewables can be utilized to deliver on reduced energy demands. The industry as whole is starting to embrace the sentiment that you can’t change what you don’t measure. Based on this ethos more and more built environment stake holders are beginning to understand the value of performance analysis and are adopting strategies to incorporate it.

Post design, the goal is to undertake enhanced commissioning to ensure optimum set up, followed by continuous commissioning throughout operation, making the building responsive to occupancy and usage changes, enhancing fault detection, and also enabling optimization programs which assess suitability and impact of energy conservation measures and new technologies, alongside capital versus operational cost implications.

The application of 3D building performance simulation on new-build, refurbishment and operation optimization projects facilitates a greatly improved integrated and sustainable design process, a necessary component to tomorrow’s eco-cities. It paves the way for smart interaction between buildings in a community or city to optimize efficiency at the next level.

Through virtual testing and performance analysis the industry is able to cut through greenwash and deliver measurable results. These results are what will drive eco-cities.

Dr. Don McLean is Founder and CEO of IES. For more information, visit

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